Written by Nancy Tinari; copy edited by Adrienne Munro
On Friday, October 19, I had the pleasure of attending the Vancouver Writers Festival on Granville Island. I’ve attended sessions there for many years now, and I invariably find the panels of writers inspiring and thought-provoking.
This year was no exception. In this article, I’m writing about an event entitled “Lives Off-Road,” featuring writers Kate Harris, Jan Redford, and Joanna Streetly, with moderator Amanda Lewis. (Lewis is the editorial director of Page Two Strategies, a company that helps writers with all aspects of producing self-published non-fiction books.)
The audience in the packed Waterfront Theatre wasn’t there simply to listen to good stories. We were also there to discover good books and writers who weren’t yet on our radar. These Writers Fest events are invaluable for editors, too, because when writers discuss their writing processes, they almost invariably mention the crucial role that editing plays in the creation of their books. Writers often give high praise for their editors’ contributions and support.
Part of what made “Lives Off-Road” so engaging was that Lewis, the moderator of the panel, was the editor of two of the books being discussed: Harris’ Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road* and Redford’s End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood. Lewis’ familiarity with these books and their authors showed in her excellent rapport with the writers. Her questions provoked such profound and lively conversations that it was difficult for me to limit the length of this article!
Lewis began the session by introducing the writers and their newly published books. I was very eager to hear the book readings after listening to the impressive biographical details Lewis gave about each writer and the enthusiastic accolades they’d received.
All of the readings provided high entertainment. Harris was first. She read an excerpt from a particularly suspenseful section of her 4,350-mile Silk Road cycling trip. She and her cycling companion (also a woman) were trying to cross a border into Tibet in the middle of the night. They were sneaking in illegally because they couldn’t afford to get the required papers or permits. This could have ended very badly—but I will let you read the book to find out!
Streetly read next, from her latest book, Wild Fierce Life: Dangerous Moments on the Outer Coast. Here, I will make a strange confession. I don’t remember what she read because I was completely hypnotized by the music of her voice. It is one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard: rich, melodious, dramatic, and compelling. Perhaps Streetly’s voice is one reason why she has become Tofino’s inaugural poet laureate.
Redford was the final reader. Almost everything she said expressed her “badass” (her word) personality. She was lively and entertaining and introduced her reading by saying she wanted to read a part of her book that would explain her motivation for being a mountain climber. Like Harris’, Redford’s selection was suspenseful; it described Redford’s attempt to complete an extremely difficult test climb during one of her first mountaineering courses. Her excerpt gave the audience some understanding of the exact physical challenges of climbing: fingers finding tiny cracks to lodge in, feet sticking to the granite, and the mental and physical endurance required to make it to the few tiny ledges that would allow the climber’s exhausted muscles a few moments of respite. The excerpt also made it clear that much of Redford’s motivation came from her desire to prove herself to her male climbing colleagues.
Overcoming self-doubt and fear
Following the three readings, Lewis began asking questions. Many of them were related to the topics of overcoming self-doubt and fear, not only in the wilderness, but as writers sharing many of their most private, passionate, and life-changing experiences. Where did the motivation come from, both for their adventures and for writing about them?
Given the readings we had just heard, Lewis’ first question wasn’t surprising: “How do you overcome self-doubt in both your physical adventures and your writing?”
Redford plunged in by saying tersely, “The self-doubt doesn’t go away. I accept it.” She kept going despite self-doubt and fear by examining her motivation for climbing. She said, “If my motives are pure, then everything hums along.” She explained that her pure motives are the love and joy she finds in climbing. Other motivations, such as climbing to fit in with a group or to compete (often with men), have sometimes led her to trouble.
Harris stated that she likes the challenge of setting an audacious goal, one she has no certainty of reaching. Once she has announced a goal publicly (even if only to friends and family), she must hold herself accountable. She likes to make decisions based on her best self—even if that self appears only in fleeting moments.
I understood what Harris meant by her best self, and I admired her courage and ambition. We all have times when we feel confident and creative, when big ideas and goals burst up from within, but how many of us make promises to try our best to achieve these goals when the initial impetus has faded? How many of us persist until we either succeed or fail at achieving our most ambitious goals?
Redford conveyed additional ideas about self-doubt later in the conversation when she said, “Sometimes it’s so uncomfortable to make choices.” Yet sometimes being in a bad situation eliminates the need for choice—because there is none.
Streetly elaborated on this idea, explaining that in life-and-death situations, there is no time for self-doubt because one must act immediately. She made the distinction between dread and fear: dread is anticipating something bad or scary coming up; it’s worse than fear, which is when you are actually in the moment and you must simply act. Streetly has experienced crisis situations many times on the ocean, where it’s possible to get trapped quickly by unforeseen weather conditions. She said that at those times, she experiences a moment of stillness and her mother’s words come back to her: “Well, get on with it!”
What is the role of a home base for the traveller and adventurer?
Lewis’ next question was, “As an adventurous person, what role does home play for you?”
All of the writers’ answers revealed their love of wildness, both in the sense of the physical wilderness and in the sense of being able to be wild themselves—to have lives of freedom and unpredictability. Harris and Redford shared a need to get away from their families and a too-conventional environment. Streetly was different; growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, she was part of a family with five children. Her father was a well-known mountaineer and explorer; among his many stories was one about getting his finger bitten off by a piranha. Everyone in her family was dragged along on the family adventures.
Harris grew up in small-town Ontario, and she remembers always wanting to get away. She craved wildness and adventure. In response to Lewis’ question about the role of a home, she said that after extensive travelling, she realized that she also wanted a sense of belonging. Now, she has a home base in Northern BC (Atlin), a simple cabin that has Internet but no electricity or running water.
Harris added that she has found she “needs stability for the imaginary wandering of writing … The best writing comes from a place of soaring and vastness.” She mentioned philosopher Arne Næss, who lived in an exposed (though well-constructed and insulated) mountain hut. He said, according to Harris, “With that view, it was impossible to write something small.”
Redford was a tomboy, and her family didn’t accept her the way she was. She wanted to escape from her family, but she always felt conflict between her need for adventure and need for home. She spoke of wanting to create that sense of a safe place within herself.
For a long time, she had only temporary homes; she’d live with a friend for a while until she got kicked out and moved on to a new temporary place. Now, she has her own home in Squamish, on the doorstep of mountains and wilderness.
Streetly is more permanently bound to her home and her environment than the other two. She said she has always been attracted to water. Even though the climate of Trinidad and Tobago, her childhood home, is completely different from Tofino’s, she said she instantly felt at home in Tofino because of the ocean. She described, with great eloquence and emotion, her deep familiarity with and love for her home—its smells, the sound of a screeching blue heron, and many other details.
In her breathtaking voice, Streetly talked about the shiver of excitement that wilderness places give her and that she is addicted to that sensation. All her life she has felt the magnetic lure of the wilderness.
I heard the same sense of awe in Harris’ voice when she talked about the wilderness. She sees the wilderness as a place of staggering complexity. She went on to say that, as a species, we often think of ourselves as being in control of our environment, as stewards of the Earth, but in a way it is reassuring to know that is not true—that we are part of something bigger.
As for Redford, I sensed some wistfulness in her voice when she said, “I have to go out and break another finger,” meaning she doesn’t just want to write about past adventures. She wants to continue having new adventures.
These writers’ love and awe for the wilderness makes it unsurprising that all three have been called explorers. Lewis asked how they felt about that label, given that most explorers in the past were men, and most of them exploited the lands, resources, and peoples they found.
Harris suggested that modern explorers find a kinship with places. From the writers’ other comments, I would add the word respect. Streetly made a comment about the mysteriousness of the ocean: “The ocean doesn’t tell you.” It must be respected. It can impose the ultimate limit—death—as Streetly reminded us, adding that she has written articles about drownings.
Memoir writing as a courageous adventure
Many audience members at Writers Fest events want to learn more about the craft of writing itself, as well as what inspires a desire to write and how successful writers maintain their motivation. Lewis asked the panellists why they wanted to write their memoirs and how they chose what to include. After all, a chief demand of the memoir genre is deciding what must be left out.
Also, writing a memoir takes courage, just as these women’s physical adventures did. How much does a writer choose to reveal? Someone commented that fiction, ironically, allows more honesty than non-fiction because people can pretend it’s not about them.
Memoir writing also illustrates the selectivity of memory and the way we choose to omit parts of our stories. When her mother died, Streetly told us, she found all the letters she had written to her mother about her youthful adventures. She said she was astonished at how obscured this version of her life was. She hadn’t remembered holding back so much from her mother and said the letters she wrote to her sister during the same period must have been very different.
Redford sees the 12 years she has spent writing her book as a way of transferring her physical wildness into another medium. She noted that writing has its own kind of unpredictability and that not censoring herself has required a great deal of courage.
Harris emphasized that a memoir is a shaped document. She said, “Wielding a pen is a kind of control.” At the same time, she found writing her book to be another kind of adventure, a thrilling one. “Your own story has the capacity to surprise even you!”
Redford described writing her memoir as a way of taking responsibility for what had happened to her during her life. She said that in trying to create a good story, she was able to see her own role in shaping her story—the cause and effect. This gave her a sense of power and control over her life.
Streetly said she has found that even mistakes can be transformative. One of her reasons for writing is her conviction that others can learn from her mistakes.
All three authors at the “Lives Off-Road” event have successfully transferred the courage and passion they demonstrate in their wilderness pursuits to their writing. I was inspired by them, but I also found them exceptional in their eagerness for dangerous challenges and unpredictability.
Perhaps that was why the theatre was filled to capacity. Maybe we in the audience wanted to share these women’s adventures and freedom vicariously or find out how they summoned the courage to “go for it.”
We were all pumped, I think, to be braver, aim higher, take some chances—or at least read these wonderful writers’ books!
*Kate Harris’ Lands of Lost Borders sold out at both the theatre and the festival bookstore immediately after the event.
Nancy Tinari is a former Olympic runner who enjoys reading, editing, and reviewing books, as well as writing about fitness and psychology.
Adrienne Munro recently moved to the village of Canoe, BC, where she lives with her partner, Chris, and their new rescue Chihuahua, Raine. Adrienne is a researcher, writer, editor, gardener, paddler, and printmaker who loves sunshine and snail mail. She has an undergraduate degree in archaeology and plans to complete her MA in cultural and literary studies in 2019.
Photo provided by Nancy Tinari.